Saturday, July 2, 2011

Darrell Gray - RIP

(Photo credit David Highsmith)

Ron Silliman has mentioned the late poet Darrell Gray several times on his Silliman's Blog, but he's never addressed Gray's own poetry as such. Silliman has basically abandoned commentary on his blog, after declaring himself interested in other media and other projects several months ago, not long after shutting down his comment stream. In one of those ironic coincidences, his interest in discussing poetry on the internet declined at about the same point that blogging, as a media fad, began to fade. So I guess it's up to stragglers like me, to keep the discussion going.

Silliman's interest in Darrell Gray was primarily limited to his devotion to a documentation of minor movements in Post-War American poetry. Largely as a spoof, Darrell invented a poetic "movement" called Actualism, even edited an anthology--The Actualist Anthology, Morty Sklar and Darrell Gray, eds., The Spirit That Moves Us Press, 144pp., 1977; and published a collection of prose pieces, Essays and Dissolutions [Abraxas Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 1977] in which he laid out, with tongue in cheek, some of the "principles" of the movement's aesthetic. The Actualist movement, which he named, began in 1970 in Iowa City, largely because of the presence there of Anselm Hollo, Dave Morice, Allan Kornblum and George Mattingly--the last three of whom initiated little magazines and/or publishing concerns which had some legs--Morice's Gum magazine, Kornblum's Toothpaste Press and later Coffee House Press, and Mattingly's Search For Tomorrow magazine, and Blue Wind Press. Darrell Gray had graduated from the Writer's Workshop in 1968, and, casting about for social and literary connections, had hung around the college town after taking his degree. He fell easily into the "anti-workshop" scene which tended to cohere around Hollo (Berrigan had left the year before, taking Alice Notley with him), setting up as a kind of late faux-Beat-cum-New York School wunderkind.

Right after arriving at the Workshop myself in 1969, I had read a sheaf of Darrell's poems in Poetry Magazine (which can be viewed here), which really impressed me. It was clearly "workshop" material, but it was head and shoulders above what Poetry had begun publishing when Daryl Hine took over as chief editor (1969-1977). (Probably, Darrell's work had been selected during Henry Rago's tenure, but appeared after Rago's death.) The day we met in a small coffee shop in Iowa City that Fall, I mentioned to Darrell how impressed I was with these poems, and we struck up an immediate friendship. I think we both realized that he had moved on, so to speak, and no longer was interested in that kind of work, but Darrell was very eclectic and broad in his tastes, and could accept his previous attempts as valid efforts, even if they may have seemed passé to him later. When he collected his early work in Something Swims Out [Blue Wind Press, Iowa City, 1975], he included all of them.

What was pretty clear about Darrell, once you got to know him, was that he was a kind and generous soul, but that he'd had a fairly unhappy childhood, raised by a single parent (his mother), and that he was frankly lonely and somewhat introverted. Poetry--and the poetry "scene"--provided him with an identity that he wouldn't have been able to find elsewhere, on other terms. After only a few minutes talking with him that first Winter, it was apparent that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary poetry--the writers, the magazines, the publishers, the schools, everything--and that he used that knowledge to place himself in relation to the world. In this sense, perhaps, Actualism was a valid expression of his way of participating in the great debates about form, meaning and history. But rather than try to express my opinion about Actualism, which in any case was never really a serious attempt at storming the gates of the literary establishment, at least in my view, I'd simply like to talk a little bit about those poems of his I first read in Poetry Magazine.

(Photo credit Alastair Johnston's "Rogues Gallery"

As those who read Silliman's pieces about Darrell Gray know, he developed into a serious alcoholic after he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, and eventually died in 1986, probably of a heart attack brought on by debilitating alcoholic abuse (his body was discovered in his apartment), and his active writing had lain dormant for some time, though Darrell often could be seen in taverns and at poetry readings in the area during the 1970's and 1980's.

After I returned to the Bay Area in the mid-1970's, I rarely saw or heard from Darrell, but we did meet a couple of times, though he was usually drunk and a little woozy in his speech. There are some writers--Bukowski for instance--who can handle alcohol even while they are addicted to it, and may even use it to augment their inspiration--but Darrell was not one of these. Drink just destroyed him. And of course Darrell was usually broke, and his situation precarious. As with all gifted people who suffer from a powerful addiction, it was sad to see someone with so much potential fritter away his ability, wallowing in self-pity and frustration. We did have mutual interests, but I was tied down in a dead-end government job in those years, and we didn't run in the same circles. Darrell always complimented me on my own work, and I think, under different circumstances, we might have become great dear friends. But it was not to be.

(Photo credit Shelly Vogel courtesy Poltroon Press)

Here are the six poems in their entirety:


"Elephants are at home anywhere"
--Peter Schjeldahl


How can we sleep with all these elephants
Around us? Oh Muse, must I placate you
Like the moon! I'm not so young anymore,
And moonlight on those huge sad humps
Leaves me helpless. Must they stand
At the foot of our bed? My peanuts are gone,
And their trunks are cold and hard.


Remember the jungle? Of course. Let's go
To sleep. I can't. Those mounds of sunlight
Running all over our feet. We were lost
For days in the wind. When miracles
Fell on us we had forgotten their language.
It was like living in a cloud. We felt
A breeze and suddenly the ocean appeared
"Out there," or so we said. I had a toothache.
You photographed the local ferns and vines.


It was there we saw the elephants. They
Were walking on the water, their long tails
Leaving little waves behind them. It was beautiful--
Those huge things silently on the water.
When we left, they followed. Now, our house
Is a heaven of snorts. The yard looks tough
In the sun. We live somehow, loving
And helpless, and always in their shadow.


"Grace to be born and live as
variously as possible"
--Frank O'Hara


The lightning arranges us
here in the tranquil reaches
where the red flowers
have history to grow from.
Around them, we become
direct & conversational,
having stood for so long
accomplishing great stumps
on the frozen lawn. But soon,
we imagine, we will collide
with furry places--the rose's
moist explosion--symmetrical,
dangling, alert.


One cannot close this eye.
For it is the world in the end
that moves us--its miraculous urges
waking us each morning. The sky
focuses on all the strange little plants,
and we are among them, strangely,
holding a cup of coffee,
because we can't be perfect.
And the car drives over it,
soundlessly, its volume equivalent
to the air its movement displaces.

Today is Water

Today is water
flowing from the faucet.

I shave, noticing a smear
the rain left on the window.

Outside, dark pools
are lying on the ground.

Leaving the house,
I see myself in the water,

smaller in the smallness
of the pool.

For the Future Occupants

Having shortened the space between our fingers,
and felt the walls pull finally apart,
we are no longer ourselves

on edges nor care to be.
Breaking the surface of the formal past
we discover endless cups of coffee,

paper-weights containing tiny oceans,
and old shoes emitting a slow
blue light.

Our neighbors in the bone stand close together.
Their children draw on our doors
mountains and rivers,

and below them, in bold letters:

No one listens to the shafts of sunlight
arriving continually to take our place.
At the moment, we are not here. The moment is

shortening, takng us
in. But we come back on the sand,
on lawns. We look around.

We are on an archery range that extends forever
like a photo of arrow caught in mid-flight.
Some of us have glimpsed the dart-games of ruminant angels,

and some, touching the delicate curves
of clavicles, have forgotten their names.
We are going back to where we had no name,

back through the grass, through the groves
of pianos. We are approaching woodlarks, crickets,
and bridges long covered with water.

In the distance, transparent tractors
climb the terraced hills, and into the fields of dark poppies
whose seeds contain old photos of the Civil War.

The Thought

When I think of everything I have been thinking
It appears like the reflection of footprints on a glass floor
Through which I look down on the park
Containing the bodies of the young girls
Under the trees, their faces startled by the glass
Birds flying through the green depths of the day--
Typographical errors take root, and the future becomes
An enormous glass harp attracting the sleep of animals
As my life continues to roll its electric ball of darkness
Leaving no mark on the ground


For Cindy

Our bodies are like the shadows of unborn planets.
Sometimes, when we are alone, they are all we have.

Though in many ways these strike me now as typically "workshop" poems from the late 1960's, in a style which many people were using in those days, I still find they have redeeming values, and they show Darrell's typical modesty and tact--though he could, on occasion, exhibit boisterous humor. Darrell often used laughter to defuse tension, or to cover his embarrassment, something I think that was typical of some of the people he tended to associate with. Though he was erudite, he frequently settled for simplistic transactions in mixed company, and could, on occasion, clam up without warning.

In the Sixties, the Workshop became known for a certain kind of poem, exemplified by the work of James Tate, which you can read in his first (Yale Prize) collection, The Lost Pilot. That collection is anchored by the emotional intensity of the loss of Tate's father, a pilot in WWII. But the overriding stylistic character is a prosaic narrative style, employing techniques from Surrealism to free verse, but in every poem keeping to a strict simplistic arc. Formally, the work doesn't ask anything of the reader, except a mild curiosity. It is as if Eliot and Stevens and Moore and Pound and Williams had never existed. As if Modernism had never happened. The Workshop became known for promoting this kind of writing, perhaps as a consequence of the way that workshop classes are run, or were run in those days. Reacting to new styles and different kinds of writing takes time. Sitting down and reading new work for the first time in a class setting, it may seem that a charming, witty, playful, humorous or clever poem makes more sense than one which challenges our expectations. Hence, a poem like "For the Future Occupants"--which seems more about the rote strategies of expedient construction, than about any compelling argument or story. Each statement proposes a peculiar, tantalizing assertion (i.e., "dark poppies whose seeds contain old photos of the Civil War"), but the purpose to which such events or fantasies might refer is not furnished. You could say it's lazy writing, except that the evident confidence of the rhetorical devices used tends to dampen our curiosity. It's almost as if the sequence of phrasing--the matrix of the whole poem's syntactic layout--is a scaffolding, into which a number of different statements, metaphors and images, could be put without disturbing its basic design. That's very much what Iowa taught, in those days--the strategic template for writing successful, risk-free, poems. Poems weren't supposed to challenge the reader, but to satisfy him, make him nod approvingly, "yes, yes...that makes all fits together." Making things fit.

But Darrell demonstrably didn't "fit." And his anxiety to do more than just use poetry as a social entry into a purposeful life, made him abandon the path these early poems had made for him. In an earlier post on The Compass Rose on my late fellow student poet of the late 1960's, Patrick Schnoor, I speculated about the casualties, of those caught up in the enticing diversions of those years--drugs, sex and the underground life. As Darrell seemed someone whose life would forever be incomplete, his eventual decline and demise may appear to have been fated.

I recall certain lines of his--"The sky focuses on all the strange little plants, and we are among them, strangely, holding a cup of coffee, because we can't be perfect"--which seem themselves nearly--but not quite--perfect in their appropriation of his singular humility and ironic virtue. "I see myself in the water, smaller in the smallness of the pool."

The poem about the elephants is certainly a wholly successful effort. What is the significance of the elephants to the speaker? Are they powers over which we have no control? Or slightly overgrown playthings, remnants from an overactive childhood imagination? We share space with these slightly disquieting Pleistocene deities, which haunt our dreams. I think Darrell would have liked this picture of an elephant swimming, photographed from under the water. It's not walking on the water, but just seeing it swim, from this vantage, is nearly as miraculous a phenomenon.



Kirby Olson said...

I have heard a lot about Darrell Gray over the years. Codrescu liked him a lot and sings his praises. I have never liked anything that Gray wrote, but I'm not sure why this is so. The language just doesn't dazzle me, I think, and I can't figure out what he's trying to say. What do you think he says in the elephant poem?

I do like elephants. The world would be far less interesting without elephants. And donkeys.

and aye-ayes!

This is probably the most close-up intro to Darrell Gray that I've read. I liked your reading of him as a person and how he'd just "close up."

Did he have boyfriends and girlfriends?

I also liked how you traced the influence of James Tate back in those days. Thomas Lux's popularity was also due to the streaky streak of surrealism as entertainment with jots of real emotion thrown in.

The Billy collins came and capitalized on all that, and it went sour, it seems.

It was too successful, perhaps, and also a little bit empty.

Or coy.

Gregory Corso had incredible powers of recuperation from drink and other drugs. He would be completely deranged, and then pull himself out of it within an hour and be completely coherent again.

I don't drink. I do drink tea. I consider tea a vice, because it has caffeine in it, but I still drink it!

Conrad DiDiodato said...


what I take away from this is the tragedy of the misspent 'heart'of poets struggling with addiction. There are so many stories like this in the San Francisco area.

This is my first encounter with Gray, & he seems like a fine poet: I also find remarkable that you can write of not a few of these literary figures from personal acquaintance. I appreciate the access into the hidden corners of literary history you provide and that the mainstream won't mention. Steven Fama is good this way, too.

It's a very nice kind of homage you pay to writers who would be forgotten if someone, as you say, didn't keep the discussions going online.

Charles Shere said...

Yes. Another friend told me earlier today he'd given up his campaigns to interest the Bancroft Library in furthering its work in oral histories; they're apparently interested only in compensation and neglect their responsibilities. I told him we must all simply go on doing our own work, and write down our thoughts. Your blog has great historical importance and is a generous gift to the future. Besides, it's interesting.

George Mattingly said...

Thanks for this account, Curtis. It all rings true.

Photo credits? (I know these shots but have forgotten who took them.) Also: Ted Berrigan left Iowa City for Ann Arbor in the summer of 1969. Alice Notley joined him later.

I see more in Darrell's early works than you do, but then he was my best friend at the time, so that's probably inevitable. That said, I think it was his second book, SCATTERED BRAINS, which is his best.

Darrell was deeply into alcohol long before he moved to San Francisco. We shared a house in Iowa City in 1972 (the year that SOMETHING SWIMS OUT was published, btw, not 1975) and Darrell could often (at any time of day or night) be seen drinking a tumbler of what he referred to as a "Bloody Mary," which was barely pink.

To Darrell the idea of "movements" in the arts was laughable. (The "Actualist Movement" began as a stoned joke in my living room on South Capitol Street. It morphed into a kind of Dada stunt.) When the Language Poetry movement took off, eventually capturing the mainstream academic world, it left Darrell a bitter spectator.

Everything you say about his emotional isolation and insecurity is true as well, but I think he could have survived all of that if he had felt some measure of success as a poet.

He may have suffered a heart attack, but clearly he died of a broken heart.

Curtis Faville said...


Obviously, you knew Darrell better than I did.

The photos come right off the internet, and are uncredited, insofar as I'm aware. Would anyone take umbrage at my appropriation of them? I doubt it.

The online listings for Something Swims Out showed 1975, but I probably would have realized that that was wrong, since I had a copy of the book when I left Iowa City in August 1972. When Darrell visited us that Spring at our farmhouse out on Rural Route 4, he spent the day consuming a whole bottle of Chateau Climens sauternes. He would gladly have spent the night sleeping it off, but I insisted on driving him back to town.

I always thought Darrell was more successful than most with his poetry. I think the problem was not that he was "rejected" by the literary world, but that he felt inadequate to engage with it on equal terms. And then, his sense of form and occasion in writing was becoming rapidly more abstract and experimental than the poetry world (of those days). Ironically, the work with which he might have launched a real academic career, he no longer really believed in, or so that's how I see it. I can't imagine Darrell "teaching poetry" in a college--can you?

My concern here was to try to show that Actualism doesn't constitute Darrell's "legacy"--something one might think if only reading Silliman's blog. Actualism was a Dada-ist joke as much as an exercise in literary humbuggery. If you don't understand that, you don't understand Darrell.

Maybe if he had found a strong companion in those years who understood his weaknesses and could have loved him for himself, he might have persevered. But that was a long-shot.

We all miss him.

poltroon said...

"Coming right off the internet" is not actually true and you should credit the artists, if you are not going to ask permission. the top one i believe is by David Highsmith, the second one by me, shot in my studio, Poltroon Press, as Darrell was reading proof on HALOS OF DEBRIS, the third is also from my website and was taken by Sheldon Vogel in Santa Barbara and is a detail of a group shot. I only object when people pretend that once something is on line it is free to modify or reuse.
Sincerely, Alastair Johnston

Curtis Faville said...


The owners of the photos of Darrell did complain, so I've added attributions.

Pat Nolan said...

Curtis -- very nice tribute to Darrell. He was an excellent poet whose work should have had wider appreciation. As George says he might have survived had his success as a poet been acknowledged by more than a few friends and fans. Reading these poems again reminded me what a wickedly subtle sense of humor he had. So lacking in the poetry of today. An attempt at a collected poems was made many years ago, shortly after his passing. Apparently Kornblum was involved though I am not aware of all the details. Maybe someone will be inspired by your post and put it on their 'to-do' list. Thanks for the memories.

Curtis Faville said...

Kornblum has stepped down from his managerial position at Coffee House Press.

I don't have any info about Darrell's collected poems. I suppose there must be about 400 pages--at least. Is this a copyright issue? Is there a literary executor?

It would be nice to have, of course.

laslaw01 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Curtis Faville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

Well, the other guy is right, I think, Curtis. Writing is copyrighted, too. Even single phrases are the copyright of each blogger.

There is a presumption of ownership in other words.

At least for writing and painting, this is true, so I assume it holds for photographs as well.

The presumption is that it's owned. Wiki pedia does have many images that are public domain, but they should be marked as such before we use them.

Obviously, this is not going to be challenged in court unless someone has deep pockets. But it's like not butting in line.

We shouldn't do it. I've done it in the past but largely because I can't easily find out who owns an image, and I try to use images that are basically public domain.

Curtis Faville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Raworth said...

Curtis: always good to see Darrell swim into focus. Of course there should be a Collected (the two books George published are among the very few poets' books -- Whalen another -- I re-open). As I remember, after Darrell's body was discovered everything in his room was sent to the city dump. Alastair Johnston and Jim Nisbet went and combed the dump and retrieved whatever they could... some notebooks, other odds and ends. So there's possibly more work than an amalgam of the already-published. George would know the copyright situation of the Blue Wind Press books.
best, Tom

gary lemons said...

i knew Darrell back then--I came to the Writer's Workshop in 1970--he'd just graduated and was a few years older than me and i very much admired him--i read with him at a place called the Sanctuary--1971 I think and we collaborated on a couple of poems--one of which i still have--he was a brilliant, sad, lovely man for whom the rain was a place to hide--and so many nights spent walking in it between the Vine and Donnellys==down the alley connecting them in already out of style pea coats with the hoods up and a pipe of mostly seeds like a sparkler exchanged between hands--a good man--a good poet--vaya con dios Darrell--see you some day again.

gary lemons
port townsend, washington

Curtis Faville said...

Gary Lemons:


I was there 1969-1972. I don't remember you.

People tended to hang out with those in their class, I think. It was a two year program. Norman Dubie, Barrett Watten, Robert Harris, Jane Shore, Roger Weingarten, Robert Funt, Alice Notley, Sherry Lougheed, Elizabeth Libby, Wendy Salinger, Suzanne Zwinger, Thomas Rabbitt, David St. John, Greg Simon--they were my contemporaries. Many others whose names I've forgotten.

Did you know me?

Ever run into Marvin Bell (in Port Townsend)?

Or Paul Conklin?--he was my step-cousin--died, I think, in 2004. A major photojournalist. His son David still has a photographic studio there.

PM me, and we'll talk.

TenderPaws Yoga said...

i don't remember you wither Curtis--Norman is still a good friend of mine--he wrote the blurb on the back of my last 2 books--

And i occasionally played golf with marvin and sam hamill back before marvin gave up the game and sam moved to anacortes.

I studied with don justice as well--great poker player--great poet. Of the names you mention i knew david st. john--david romvedt was also there and i ran into him later in port townsend where he was very involved in the local fiddletunes workshops.

Didn't know the great photographer paul conklin but do know david his son and his ex-wife--also from iowa--jane champion--jane and i collaborated on a couple video projects.

I was in the undergraduate workshop--you were likely in the graduate workshop given the names you mention--i was in 4 consecutive undergraduate workshops and accepted into the graduate program when i decided to head north--alaska pipeline--never regretted it.

i think of daryll very fondly--pull out "Something Swims Out" once in a while just to remember his work--remember his contribution--


Curtis Faville said...


Did you know Denis Johnson? Steve Toth?

The undergrad workshop had its own scene.

kilimologue said...

Oh Darrell Gray! The Catastrophic UNrush of Beauty. You see, here in timeles space, here we are again, Iowa City 1969-71, and Bay Area, 72-75, we met and drank and laughed in the night. You and Patty O'Donnell visited Trudy and some in Palo Alto. Have your voice on casette recordings (Turkeytail Review 1975) and yr sweet soul embedded in my heart beating still here tonite. your line drawings, felt tip pen fading in the sun, bright as birds who are smarter because they fly. Goodnight sweet prince, may your Collected materialize someday soon now. Yrs ever in the night, John Batki

Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for looking and for your transmission to Darrell.

I know he's chuckling in hyperspace as he watches and listens.

If he were still here, he might be able to show us his new work, which we won't get to read unless we enter heaven too.

Curtis Faville said...

And let's not forget Anselm.

I'm sure Anselm and Darrell are sitting somewhere, smoking, chuckling, and telling stories.

TenderPaws Yoga said...

just heard today that big John Birkbeck--another rogue Iowa City poet from those days just passed away--his lovely little collection Donnell's for which David Maurice wrote the back blurb (itself an admirable piece of swirl) is never too far from my line of sight in my studio--John was a brilliant and dedicated orator who also had something no one else i knew had at that time--a steady high paying job as Van Allen's illustrator in the Physics Department--the benefits of which he generously spread among lesser mortals in the form of republicans and democrats and even the occasional gift of a pitcher--dear John--

maryalterwoman said...

I can't say why Darrell Gray showed up in my consciousness this morning. I didn't write poetry. I wasn't a grad of the Writer's Workshop.I was one of the girlfriends that tagged along and listened to the poet's talk, barely having a clue as to what they were trying to say and too shy to speak up and ask questions. Darrell did eventually have a girlfriend which was a surprise because he was so introverted and difficult to relate to, being considered the genius of the group of "actualists". (I was Jon Sjoberg's girlfriend for two years starting around 1972). I was with the group when Alan Kornblum showed off his first press for his small zines. It was exciting years later when I moved to Minneapolis and found out that Coffee House Press had become a big deal in the world of small, independent presses.
Alan Kornblum died not too long ago. Sad to know that Darrell Gray died so young. I don't know if Jon Sjoberg is still alive, or Morty Sklar or Chuck Miller, who I've run into at Iowa City several time over the past decade. They were all dreamers with big dreams and I will never forget them. Even with being shy, I learned about poets and poetry from them and still read it today (and write a bit from time to time).. Even as I was angry at the sexism that seemed to prevail in the group, I can forgive them as young and vulnerable men on a challenging journey.